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Oakland’s air quality problem: Can first-of-its-kind legislation solve it?

on December 11, 2018

It’s a brisk November afternoon in East Oakland. Inside her family’s home off 105th Avenue, 9-year-old Celia Fragoso is munching away on popcorn while trying to find a comfortable spot on the beige couch near the living room window. It’s a Sunday, and Black Panther is playing on the TV overhead. “These are fourth-grader things to do,” she says.

A fistful of the crunchy snack prompts a cough. Celia’s mom quickly turns her gaze toward her daughter.

“Just the popcorn,” Celia says. “Don’t worry.”

But her mom always worries. Since finding out five years ago that her daughter has asthma, Marina Muñoz has remained vigilant in protecting Celia’s health and preserving the simplicity of her childhood years. To safeguard Celia from asthma attacks, Muñoz limits the time her daughter can spend outside, especially because their home is only a stone’s throw away from the 880 freeway. She drives Celia to school each day. Using her cellphone camera, she reports trash and other pollutants around her block to the city, and she frequently shares her frustrations about pollution and poor air quality at community meetings.

But sometimes, Muñoz and her husband spend entire nights caring for Celia during asthma flare-ups. Other nights, they are sleepless with worry about whether Celia’s asthma will ever go away.

“It’s the reality of having a child with asthma, and it’s the reality of living with Oakland’s bad air quality,” Muñoz says in Spanish as her son Cesar Fragoso translates. “I want clean air for my family and our community, but it’s not an easy process. It’s complicated. It’s frustrating.”

The Fragoso family is one of hundreds in Oakland who have a child with asthma. Childhood asthma affects about 18 percent of Oakland’s youth, according to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). That’s 4 percent higher than the state average and twice the national average for youth up to age 17. Public health experts at CDPH and the World Health Organization blame nearly a third of asthma cases and similar respiratory conditions in California on air quality. In Oakland specifically, air quality experts say pollution from traffic and industrial activities creates and perpetuates respiratory health problems like lung cancer. Lung and respiratory cancer deaths are the most common types of cancer leading to death in Oakland.

“The community is surrounded by so many different sources of air pollution,” says Elizabeth Yura, director of community engagement and policy for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). “You have freeways bordering the community on all sides. You have the port, which has its own industrial-type sources, but also brings in a lot of on-road traffic and a lot of construction directly into the neighborhood. These things do affect the air and people’s wellbeing.”

While the problems with air pollution from traffic and heavy industry have been known for a long time, state authorities are finally tackling Oakland’s air quality—but it’s been slow going. Last year, outgoing Governor Jerry Brown—a former Oakland mayor—signed into law Assembly Bill 617, which is meant to improve air quality in parts of California that are notoriously polluted and where vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected. Thanks to AB 617, in September the California Air Resources Board (CARB) finalized a first-of-its-kind statewide plan—called the Community Air Protection Program—to tackle pollution, with the goal of identifying its local sources, figuring who is most susceptible to it, and allowing residents to recommend strategies to reduce emissions and exposure. The legislation requires local air districts like the BAAQMD to identify disadvantaged communities for closer monitoring and put into action new plans to decrease pollution.

West Oakland was chosen by CARB as one of 10 California communities to be the first to participate in the new program. There, the process to develop a emissions reduction plan has already started, with a series of brainstorming sessions led by the BAAQMD and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), a group that advocates for reducing people’s exposure to air contaminants. But whatever plan they design won’t be approved until late 2019. And according to CARB documents, it will take at least two or three more years to roll out any changes called for in the plan.

East Oakland could be chosen by BAAQMD and CARB for the next round of community planning starting in December, 2019. If selected, East Oakland could begin a community air monitoring or emissions reduction program by 2021.

For Oaklanders who are struggling to breathe, these changes can’t come fast enough. “[Assembly Bill] 617 is still slow moving,” says Esther Goolsby, a community organizer for East Oakland’s Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental activism nonprofit. “This bill seems like a timely distraction on improving our health for real and changing the air in real life. We don’t have time to wait a couple years to see what happens and see if anything even happens. Because in the meantime, people are still suffering. Their health is deteriorating. People are dying.”

Brian Beveridge, co-director of WOEIP, points out that the new process is a double-edged sword: It gives Oakland residents more planning power and a bigger say in what the government must fix. But local organizing can be a slow, multi-step process—and time is of the essence.

“Basically, 617 says the community gets to write an action plan. Historically, it’s done by professional planners inside regulatory agencies or the private sector,” Beveridge says. “So it’s a big challenge to bring the community group, the steering community, up to speed—it’s a fairly complicated process. But they’re the ones who get to say now what the problems are and what needs addressed.”

***

On November 7, dozens of community members have gathered at the West Oakland Senior Center for a steering committee meeting to outline the necessary steps for reducing air pollution. The BAAQMD—like the nine others chosen for the first stage of the CARB project—has until July 2019 to develop its air monitoring plan for Richmond, and until October 2019 to adopt an emissions reduction plan for West Oakland.

On the second floor of the senior center, steering committee members—all from West Oakland—sit together at a circle of tables. Behind them, two rows of seats are open to the public—though by meeting time, all but a handful are filled by interested environmental professionals, rather than community members. In front of everyone stands a whiteboard, serving as a makeshift projection screen for the evening’s PowerPoint presentations. “Get your food and get ready to participate,” WOEIP codirector and longtime West Oakland resident Margaret Gordon tells those heading back to their seats with full plates of salad.

Hovering in the middle of the room, Beveridge greets community members and air district representatives as they make their way to their seats. He says these meetings are valuable because they help Oaklanders better understand the issues they’re facing and the power they have to influence changes. “We’re the ones who are on the ground and know where the trucks are sitting or driving where they aren’t supposed to, where trash is burning, where there’s pollution,” he says. “There aren’t enough inspection people in the world to have the eyes and ears we have on the streets. That’s why we need as many community members taking part in this as we can.”

After a short icebreaker, it’s time for eyes and ears. Phil Martien, BAAQMD’s senior advanced project advisor, begins a presentation covering common sources of pollution. People in the audience feverishly take down notes, listening attentively.

A common Oakland air pollutant, he says, is diesel particulate matter from vehicle engines—it can irritate to the eyes, nose throat and lungs, and cause coughing or headaches. It can increase people’s risk of bronchitis, cardiovascular disease or dementia. He also tells them about toxic air contaminants like benzene and butadiene (which are emitted by gas-powered cars and trucks) and formaldehyde (which comes from industrial activities). Exposure to these can lead to chronic diseases of the lungs, liver and kidneys, he says, as well as asthma and anemia. These contaminants are considered carcinogenic and can increase people’s likelihoods for developing respiratory and bladder cancers.

Emissions from activity at the Port of Oakland, major freeways and busy roadways used as trucking routes are primary causes of air pollution in West Oakland, according to the air district. Additionally, more localized sources of pollution caused by various industrial activities and wood and trash burning.

“Air pollutants put people at greater risk for asthma, cancers and heart disease, among other things,” Martien says. “But identifying the sources is one step in a larger process.”

He instructs the committee on how to use health risk assessments—which estimate the prevalence and severity of health problems of caused by pollutants—to identify where in West Oakland these contaminants exceed the air district’s goals and help them figure out the best response.

BAAQMD senior environmental planner Alison Kirk follows, walking the group through what they must do over the next two years. “We have to ask ourselves three questions,” she says: What are the sources of emissions that needed to be addressed? What actions are available to reduce them? Who has the authority to take those actions?

But answering those questions won’t be as simple as it sounds. A complicated system of authority muddies which local, regional, state or federal bodies have the ability to enact changes. And identifying which regulations already exist—but aren’t being enforced—is an obstacle the West Oakland planning group will have to overcome. On top of it all, getting more than 30 committee members to agree on the most pressing sources of pollution and what needs to be done comes with its own challenges. “I’m not sure how we’re going to decide which sources are more important than others. How are we all going to agree?” member Karin MacDonald asks the group.

Bill Aboudi, a committee member and president of AB Trucking, adds that developing incentive programs for small business owners should also be a focus. CARB’s guidelines encourage getting perspectives like Aboudi’s. But in the past, Aboudi says, programs offering funding for cleaner mechanical components for trucks has required “mountains of paperwork” and lots of time—and for business owners, he says, that makes taking part difficult.

“We’ve been through incentive programs and conversations about changes like this before, but in the past, it’s really hurt the people and the local businesses we’re trying to help,” Aboudi says. “There are ways to help local businesses contribute to cleaner air. I think we have to ask, ‘What are we going to do about that?’”

The good news is, whatever fix the community comes up with, the BAAQMD will have some money to do it. In 2017, the governor signed Assembly Bill 134, appropriating $250 million in greenhouse gas reduction funds to supports the goals of AB 617. Of that, BAAQMD was allocated $50 million, which will be made available to replace older, polluting diesel engines and to carry out infrastructure projects in low-income areas affected by emissions. Additionally, WOEIP is being awarded a nearly $500,000 CARB Community Air Grant to assist with their efforts in developing a community-driven online portal for air quality mapping and modeling.

As the meeting continues, committee members begin discussing how pollution sources will be logged using a new matrix system. Using a gridded logging system, they and the public will be encouraged to note pollution sources they encounter, jotting down where it’s coming from and how close it is to homes or schools. The system will later be used by the committee to determine which pollution sources must be addressed first, Kirk says, meaning some might have to go unaddressed.

“This will allow you to have a pretty comprehensive list of where the pollutants are; what actions are needed to reduce emissions,” Kirk says. “We say this a lot at these meetings, but you and people living their lives in West Oakland know better than anyone else where a lot of the pollution sources are. This will be really helpful to do something about it.”

In some ways, the meeting ends with more questions than answers. As committee members break out into groups to brainstorm ways to use the logging system, people wonder how they’ll prioritize which pollution sources to address first, and how they’ll get more West Oakland residents involved.

But Beveridge says questions are to be expected. The group plans to meet about once a month over the next year. “We have a long road ahead of us,” he says. “But we’re going to take this one step at a time, we’re going to be persistent, and we’re going to continue to work together as a community to get the results we all want and need.”

***

For years, California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia has been trying to clean up the air in polluted neighborhoods as a legislator representing the 58th Assembly District in southeastern Los Angeles County. Speaking by phone, Garcia says environmental justice is a major focus for her as a legislator, just as it had been during the years when she worked as an environmental activist. “Our communities have been treated like wastelands for too long and we shouldn’t have to wait any longer for change,” she says. “Because, you know what? No one’s moving us out. Every day that we’re here, everyday that we’re in a toxic environment, is a day that you’re cheating me out of my lifespan.”

Since the passage of AB 617, Garcia says she’s been tracking progress in Oakland and other communities across the state. The best part of the legislation, she says, is it allows communities to draft their own plans. While she recognizes that this has created some uncertainty for activists, businesses and local governments—because no one knows for sure what’s ahead—Garcia hopes to see the fruits of the communities’ labor in the next year or so.

“Part of why we designed the bill how we did is because the issues in Oakland are going to be different than the issues in Bell Gardens or anywhere else,” Garcia says. “We want action plans specific to our communities. Through this process, we’re learning. For the first time, we’re forcing agencies and companies to give us data. We’re learning how the process is broken and we’re starting to legislate moving forward.”

West Oakland has had an air pollution problem for years, and it’s taken a toll on residents. According to Alameda County Public Health Department statistics from 2011 to 2013, emergency room visits for asthma are highly concentrated in West Oakland, with a rate of 1,014.6 visits per 1000,000 residents. That’s double the overall county rate for visits. Respiratory disease and related cancers are the leading cause of death—killing 176.8 per 100,000 people over the course of 2015 to 2017—for those in that part of the city, according to the health department.

Based on these figures, the health department indicates that West Oakland experiences some of the highest asthma and cardiovascular disease complication rates in the region. Its data also indicates that at 75.4 years, life expectancy is 7 years shorter for those living in West Oakland than it is compared to the Alameda County average.

A 2008 CARB health risk assessment found that West Oakland residents are exposed to air concentrations of diesel pollution that are almost three times higher than average background levels in the Bay Area, and that 71 percent of this pollution was attributable to truck traffic. This May, a study published in Environmental Health by researchers supported by the Environmental Defense Fund concluded that in both East and West Oakland, exposure to traffic-related air pollutants (like elemental carbon and nitrogen dioxide) and to particulate matter are associated with increased risk of having a heart attack, heart surgery, and/or death due to coronary heart disease. This is especially the case for the elderly.

“People are breathing this air in every day at work, school, their work, everywhere. If you breathe in bad air long enough, you’re going to have issues with your health,” says Gordon, who’s co-leading the steering committee. She’s been an outspoken environmental activist in West Oakland for decades and was the driving force behind the 2003 launch of WOEIP. “Even for people whose [health] problems aren’t directly caused by air pollution, it’s making it worse and harder to live with.”

In East Oakland, air quality isn’t much better. The same Environmental Health study indicates that East Oakland’s freight corridor, busy roadways and industrial sector have contributed to elevated levels of air pollution caused by black carbon, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. Residents experience high asthma-related emergency department visits compared to the rest of the region—1,065.4 per 100,000 residents, which is twice the Alameda County rate and slightly higher than the one in West Oakland.

Interstate 880 (the Nimitz Freeway), a major route serving the port, Oakland International Airport and connecting East and West Oakland, is a major polluter. The corridor carries the greatest volume of truck traffic in the Bay Area and any highway in California, according to the California Department of Transportation. The stretch of I-880 in East Oakland averages 441,000 vehicle trips per day. Other heavily-polluted parts of East Oakland include busy roads just east of the Coliseum where a number of commercial and industrial facilities are close to homes, schools, senior centers and hospitals. A 2010 community-based participatory research study by Communities for a Better Environment found that levels of fine, inhalable particles in the air exceeded state and federal standards.

Additionally, according to the county’s health department, East Oakland has higher death rates due to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer than either Oakland or the county overall. Life expectancy in East Oakland is about 72 years, ten years shorter than the county average overall.

Still, experts say poor air quality is likely only one part of a larger, more complicated public health issue.

Dr. Gina Solomon, clinical professor of medicine in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at UC San Francisco, says that luckily, the Bay Area normally has good air quality overall. Since it’s near the coast, the wind often blows off the ocean, so ozone smog is generally not a big issue. Even other pollutants are low compared to other areas.

But people who live near pollution sources are the ones most often breathing unhealthy air, Solomon says. That’s because particulate matter and toxic air contaminants can cause “hot spots” near freeways, ports, truck corridors and industrial facilities. The people most vulnerable to illness in these hot spots are those with underlying heart or lung disease, the elderly, and children.

“Where you live and work partly determines the quality of the air you breathe,” Solomon says. “Unfortunately, many communities with unhealthy air also are low-income, communities of color. That’s not only true in the Bay Area, but it’s also true across the state and the country. And it may not be a coincidence.”  

For example, in West Oakland, a predominantly black and Latino, low-income community, residents are five times more likely to be exposed to toxic pollution than in the increasingly gentrified parts of Oakland, according to a 2002 report published by WOEIP and the Pacific Institute. This risk can be linked to a segregation-era practice called redlining, in which banks, insurers and other institutions denied services to minorities and residents of certain low-income areas, making it harder for them to move into Oakland’s areas with better schools and resources. Although redlining became illegal in 1968, its effects continue to prevent these communities from accessing resources and opportunities, and formerly redlined areas remain among the most polluted, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department.

“The most disadvantaged communities—in East Oakland and West Oakland—suffer more from poor air quality,” says Goolsby. “They have other burdens already affecting their lives, and adding bad air to the mix only adds more stress. And these are people and neighborhoods who don’t always have as many resources to make changes. It means we have to fight even harder for clean air. But we need people with power and authority to actually doing something, too, and making things happen.”

And there’s another ongoing health risk that will increasingly affect Californians: wildfire smoke. Recent massive wildfires like the 2018 Camp Fire and the 2017 Napa fires made it even harder—and more dangerous—for people to breathe, especially for those already dealing with respiratory and pulmonary conditions. “The recent fires undoubtedly put many hundreds of people in the Bay Area in the emergency department or in the hospital. It also predictably caused premature death in many people,” says Solomon. “The studies and data will ultimately show the toll of the recent fire smoke. From a long-term health perspective, the main concern is if this becomes a recurrent event due to fires each year in California. If that’s the future we’re facing, it will be grim.”

Still, experts like Solomon say you can’t blame everything on smoke or industrial pollution. Some respiratory illnesses are connected to genetics, she says, but many also stem from diet, medical care, exposure to cigarette or marijuana smoke or vaping fumes, exposure to indoor allergens like mold or dust mites, and workplace conditions. Even psychosocial stress is a factor that’s linked to respiratory conditions such as asthma.  “There are so many interacting factors that determine health or illness,” Solomon says.

Publications from the California Cancer Registry, a program of the California Department of Public Health that monitors cancer across the state, also note that the percentage of cancers that can be attributed to the environment alone is “probably small,” with most geographic differences in cancer rates seeming to result “more from the differences between people than from anything in their physical surroundings.” Cigarette smoking is associated with more than 85 percent of all lung cancers in California, according to the group, as well as cancers of the bladder, mouth and throat, stomach and pancreas. Diet is also a risk factor, with higher rates of cancers recorded in people who eat high-fat diets that are low in fresh fruits and vegetables.

“No one factor fully explains most people’s illness,” Solomon says. “However, we can’t change some things, like our genetics. So I like to focus on the things we can change.”

***

Anita Raymond enjoys sitting outside on her porch just about every morning in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, where she lives with her stepdaughter. In her worn, beige patio chair just a few feet from her front door, the 65-year-old enjoys watching neighbors walk their dogs and seeing kids make their way to school. “It feels like its own little community here. It always has,” she says with a smile.

But Raymond says it’s getting harder to do things as she gets older—like watering the bushes near the front steps or running her vacuum cleaner through her neat living room. Since 2012, she’s been prescribed asthma medication to combat wheezing and coughing. She takes a slow, deep breath from her inhaler twice a day. While Raymond says she’s never been one to smoke and has “always been particular about taking care of” her health, she’s found that she’s one of many people in her neighborhood who experience the same respiratory health ailments.

“There’s a lot of older black people like me around here that are taking their inhalers every day and talking about how the air’s making them sick,” Raymond says. “I’ve only been living here about 10 years, but in those years, my breathing’s gotten worse and worse. I don’t think that’s right.”

Raymond says that since she’s started taking medicine, she’s cared more about what’s being done in response to local air pollution. She wants to see changes before she dies so she knows her grandkids will have cleaner air to breathe if they choose to stay in Oakland. She’s worried, though, that change won’t happen soon enough. “What about my grandkids who are little now and play outside all day and breathe in God knows what? Is it too late for them? Are they going to have problems? Are their kids?” she asks. “Getting rid of pollution and cleaning this place up should be urgent.”

But putting together a community action plan is already proving to be more complex and more time-consuming than is allowed by AB 617, Beveridge says. They’re supposed to deliver their plan by October 2019 but, he says a more reasonable timeline might mean giving two years or more to the brainstorming and planning process.

“I think CARB and the legislature vastly underestimated the time it would take to do these things right and in a comprehensive way,” Beveridge says. “The amount of community education, the baseline knowledge that has to be imparted so people can deliberate during this process – we are hard-pressed to do this in a year, and we’ve got a tremendous amount of experience interacting with agencies and looking at data and working with some of these subjects.”

For now, the West Oakland steering committee will continue to hold monthly meetings. In January, they’ll begin filling out the pollution matrix with identified emission sources. (Their next meeting—which is open to the public—will take place January 9.) In February, they’ll begin to lay out a plan for solutions and strategies. To meet their March deadline for a draft action plan, Beveridge says they might hold an all-day workshop or plan additional meetings.

“We’ve been creating building blocks over the past few months, and now we’re getting ready to put them together and look at this as a whole,” Beveridge says.

 Goolsby, too, feels that the process “takes too long,” and she has some doubts about whether the results will be worth the amount of work residents are being asked to do. “[The air district] could be doing actual concrete things right now,” Goolsby says. “And they could have taken a much better approach than asking the community to do the work—not just telling people or showing them how bad their health is and how they need to change it while we’re all dying from it.”

Assemblymember Garcia says she knows that the timeline isn’t perfect, but she also wants to see results sooner rather than later. “I’ve heard that [more time is needed], including from the air district. And I’ve told them: Try. To try. And when the deadline comes, we’ll see what kind of product they have, and if they need an extension then, we’ll give them an extension,” Garcia says. “I think we have given air districts money to try to implement this, to make sure they have the resources to meet these ambitious deadlines. They have a whole year. They’ve known since this bill was signed that this was coming and to prepare for it.”

Elizabeth Yura, who co-leads the steering committee on behalf of the BAAQMD, says that a perfect outcome would be that the steering committee “feels their voices have been heard,” and a plan that gives the air district a clear set of to-dos. “If there are things in there that we could have direct effect on, that that would be great,” Yura says. “So at least we know we are responsible for those portions. We know that we have our board’s commitment to be able to focus incentive funding on these types of projects that come out of these local steering committees and really move those forward.”

Putting these plans into action should be a priority for the air districts, Garcia says, although she understands that they’re busy organizations. We put up deadlines and we’re starting to meet those deadlines, so we have to patient for the first year in keeping constant in how this [bill] affects communities,” Garcia says. “I think the first step that we wanted to do was to be community-driven, and we’re seeing that now—that’s happening. Like any process, it hasn’t been perfect, but we’re enthusiastic that we’re learning as we move forward.”  

***

On a chilly December night at Celia Fragoso’s house in East Oakland, there isn’t much talk about air quality—at least not during homework time. Sitting on her couch and working on math problems, she pauses to look at a poster of an angel she’d drawn in memory of a secretary at her school who’d recently passed away. When she found out a week earlier at a school-wide gathering, Celia says, she couldn’t help but cry. “I didn’t really know how to use my inhaler in first grade,” Celia says. “She showed me how when I was little—I learned from her. She helped me stay calm and take care of my asthma at school.”

It’s hard to know whether Celia’s asthma will ever go away, her brother Cesar says, and her family fears it could get worse. “We’re just going to keep doing what we can to protect her—to be careful when she’s outside and make sure she keeps taking her medicine,” Cesar says. “But she also has a voice and shouldn’t have to live in fear. She can learn about the environment and speak up about things that need to be changed. That’s something I want to keep teaching her.”

Talk about AB 617 has been rare in the neighborhood, Cesar and his mother Marina Muñoz said. They hope good will come of the new action plan, but in the meantime, Muñoz says she’ll continue to stay involved in local environmental efforts through her job at Planting Justice, a non-profit just the down street from her home that teaches formerly incarcerated people how to grow produce. She’ll also fight for cleaner air and streets free of trash by working with groups in her neighborhood.

“I don’t know if things will change, or if it will soon. But I know they can and they need to,” Muñoz says. “We will keep going to meetings and reporting pollution and teaching people in our community. We all deserve to live in a clean place, but we have to work together to make it happen.”

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